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State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury, local superintendents and teachers unions all say that they are committed to fully reopening schools in-person this fall, and some lawmakers are pushing for a vaccine mandate for teachers to protect children under 12 years old who are not able to be vaccinated.
“The delta variant is very real and strong and people have fears that are arising again, but that’s not going to stop us from…having our schools open,” Choudhury told lawmakers during a joint House Appropriations and Ways and Means Committee briefing on school re-openings Wednesday. This was Choudhury’s first public meeting with state lawmakers since he took the helm of the state’s public school system on July 1.
In updated state guidance last month, Maryland education and health officials “strongly recommend[ed],” but did not require all eligible Marylanders to get vaccinated.
But some lawmakers contended that there should be a vaccine mandate for teachers to protect students.
For the past year and a half, children have “had to sit in the house to protect adults, and now all we’re asking is adults to put something on the line for them — it just feels like it’s not equal,” Del. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore City) said.
Harford County Superintendent Sean Bulson told lawmakers that local superintendents think vaccine mandates should be a state initiative and called it “a very difficult subject.”
Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) took issue with Bulson’s comment.
“I’m a little disheartened at the notion that this is a difficult subject. We require every one of the hundreds of thousands of children that go into our schools to get vaccinated. We’ve been doing it for decades,” he said. “This shouldn’t be a difficult subject — the vaccine is safe.”
Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonte Brown said that the union has not surveyed its members about vaccine mandates and does not have a date on when they will do so.
“The clock is ticking, so I think maybe it’s time to get that survey out,” said Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s).“Let’s make sure the adults who can [get vaccinated] do, to protect our kids,” he said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced Wednesday that all schoolteachers and staff in his state must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or do weekly testing, making it the first state to mandate vaccines for educators.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona also said Wednesday that he supports mandating the vaccine for teachers and school staff.
Vaccine mandate or not, Choudhury pressed for a full return to in-person learning with layers of safety measures to preclude schools from resorting to shuttering their doors whenever there is an outbreak, which is also in line with the U.S. Department of Education guidance.
“I would hope there are no scenarios where a single school in Maryland has to close,” Choudhury said. “I just don’t see why that would need to happen personally … just with all the support.”
However, there is nothing in place that would block local school districts from closing, he continued.
Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, told lawmakers that there is still a lack of statewide guidance on masking, which “allows for patchwork guidance from local school systems across the state and makes enforcement very difficult for our educators. It is confusing and without it, we will not stop the spread of the delta variant,” she said.
Maryland education and health officials’ updated guidance “strongly recommends” but does not require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks when they return to school in the fall. Local school systems and child care programs will be able to set their own policies; as of Wednesday, at least 10 school districts are requiring masks to start the school year, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the city of Baltimore.
Although Choudhury said most virtual programs have “not been good for learning,” he acknowledged that it works better for some students. So far, around 1.5% of students across the state have chosen a virtual learning option, according to Choudhury. Carroll and Garrett counties are the only school systems in the state that are not offering a virtual option.
In addition to state law requirements on virtual learning programs, there will be additional “guardrails,” Choudhury said. These include ensuring that there are meaningful ways to mark attendance and engagement that go beyond simply logging in, offering face-to-face tutoring, providing mentors to help with time management and establishing a technology help desk.
“There is unprecedented funding both from the federal [relief funds] and the Blueprint to be able to do this, and whether it’s virtual or in-person, there should be opportunities to be able to do small group instruction at the greatest level possible,” Choudhury said.
The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future is a multi-million, decade-long education reform effort that begins this year.
Although a record number of students are attending summer school this year to catch up on lost learning, national trends suggest that students are set back by multiple years. For instance, Texas gave spring assessments and found that students were set back by five years in Algebra, according to Choudhury.
Maryland delayed statewide assessments until the fall, which will yield more data on how much learning loss occurred in the state. For now, Choudhury said he has been telling schools to prepare to “embrace the new baselines and let’s get to work.”
But returning to pre-pandemic times is not enough, Choudhury said. The additional resources from the Blueprint, as well as federal relief funds serves as an opportunity for the state to transform its schools, he continued.
Choudhury told lawmakers more than once that he plans “to get in trouble for engaging too much” with lawmakers and stakeholders.
“I am going to be redesigning this department to be highly responsive and highly active,” Choudhury said. “I told … the PSSAM (Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland) group recently — ‘You can’t just use local control against me, I’m going to want to know how you’re doing.’”
“The Blueprint legislation is not about local control — it’s about best practices,” he said.